The French Connection – revisited. Favourite piano pieces by Debussy…

debussy_marneIn 2012 I wrote a series of posts covering an A-Z of Debussy’s music on this blog, and, since he is one of this year’s featured composers in the current series – The Lunch That Never Happened – it seems a good time to revisit some of those posts.

There are many  archived under:
‘The French Connection – An a-Z of Debussy’s Music ‘ – everything from Arabesque to Zephyr, with some curiosities and rarities thrown in,  such as Khamma and the Fall of the House of Usher.

But here are links to just four, with some trailers from the posts themselves …

Clair de Lune 
17,217,253. That is the number of views which YouTube’s top-ranking video of Debussy’s Clair de Lune had when I started research for this post a few days ago. The views now number 17,259,512 – over 42,000 more. Successive generations of pianists have fallen under the piece’s spell since its publication in 1905. My grandmother and my mother learnt it. I learnt it. Now my pupils clamour to learn it, influenced by Twilight…
 Continue reading …

La Fille aux cheveux de lin -The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise, Madame Vasnier
Qui chante dès le frais matin ?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.

So begins the poem La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin  by Leconte de Lisle from which the title of Debussy’s famous piano Prélude is taken. The poem is one of four Chansons Ecossaises from the Poèmes antiques by de Lisle.

‘Scottish Songs’ – and indeed, La fille aux Cheveux de Lin was originally set as a song by a young Debussy in about 1882, and dedicated to Madame Vasnier whose portrait is above. She was not a ‘girl with the flaxen hair’, but a married, thirty-something redhead who was a fine singer, an inspiration and a muse to the young Debussy – and much, much more besides. He wrote a number of ecstatic love songs dedicated to her – I could go on, but I urge you to listen to this wonderful programme, Songs for Madame Vasnier, to hear the original La Fille aux cheveux de lin at about 02:36, and an account of  the Debussy/Vasnier relationship as well as the songs it inspired …. Continue reading… 

Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from the Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy's daughter -Claude-Emma

As a child, did you practise your scales and exercises on the piano with due care and attention?

Yes? Congratulations, well done.

No? You didn’t? You fiddled about, or let your fingers take you to distant tonal fields away from C major? Hmm … well, you are not alone. Debussy’s Dr Gradus ad Parnassum owes its name to that esteemed tome by Clementi : Gradus ad Parnassum, which is packed with useful studies for different technical demands. Debussy’s piece, although an excellent workout for the fingers, gives the impression of an executant who has good intentions, but who becomes bored with the status quo of C major; there are tangential by-roads to be explored, and new pianistic antics to try out. And why should the RH and LH be confined to treble or bass clef respectively… Continue reading…

[Above, Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chouchou, to whom the suite is dedicated.]

Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest –  What the West Wind has Seen

 Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, to give the correct title to Debussy’s seventh prelude, is – terrifying. It is terrifying to play, and terrifying to witness. The score is even fairly terrifying to look at; it is covered with demi-semiquavers, bristling with accidentals and littered with leger lines, needing careful deciphering to work out just what is to be played when, and where…. Continue reading …

[Below, Debussy with Stravinsky, photographed by Satie!]

Debussy and Stravinsky, photographed by Satie


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The Incomparable Schubert : Sonata in A Minor D 784

Schubert.  How can I write about Schubert? How can anyone even begin to approach the sublime mystery which is Schubert? And where to start?

Let’s start with an image – Alfred Brendel at Schubert’s original grave – more about that in this previous post.

Brendel_schubert_grabAnd let’s continue with a quote from Brendel’s book, A Pianist’s A-Z .

… ‘Schubert may well be the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history. The richness of what he accomplished in a life of merely thirty-one years defies comparison.’ Yes, the incomparable Schubert.

I’m currently performing Sonata in A minor, D 784. It was composed in February 1823 – a grim time in Schubert’s life; he has been hospitalised for the disease which would lead eventually to his death. In three movements, the Sonata opens, Allegro giusto, in the bleak key 0f A minor, pianissimo, with a stark, skeletal melody in octaves, pared down to the bare bones of a musical outline, and with a sombre, inexorable rhythmic tread. It ends with a falling minor 3rd in a two-note slur, a motive which will become increasingly important as the movement progresses, forming the accompaniment as the melody above it grows and expands.The dynamic gradually increases, and jagged dotted rhythms introduce defiance and anger before a modulation to E major brings us to the second subject. Schubert brings beauty out of despair in a steadily paced but lyrical section, wonderfully contoured.

The development explores ideas already heard, then a new thread is found – using dotted rhythms, but in a dance-like manner. The darkness of the opening returns at the recapitulation, the second subject now is in A major, and a coda finally affirms A major as the closing key, the falling minor third motive now triumphantly transformed into a major third. Hope? Light?

The second movement, Andante, in F major, seems innocuous and charming, until a brief motive, sordini, intensifies and turns the musical direction from F major through a foreign landscape of keys, arriving at last in the dominant key of C major for a reprise of the opening melody beneath a halo of quiet triplets. Listen out for the surprise modulation near the end, before the music is finally allowed to come to rest in the opening key.

The third movement, Allegro vivace, is like quicksilver, the hands chasing each other in a relay of triplets tossed between them. A dance-like second idea brings grace and elegance before the two hands take off again with the triplets, interspersed with precipitous arpeggios in contrary motion. We hear the dance again, and a magical modulation, before quiet triplets propel us into a return of the opening material. Tension builds before a flurry of unexpected octaves brings the Sonata to an aggressive conclusion.

Here is Richter:


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A Mere Bagatelle – or two …

Beethoven_caricatures_Lyser (1)

 -something of little value or importance; a trifle

 -a thing regarded as too unimportant or easy to be worth much consideration

 -a short and light musical composition, typically for the piano.

This post is about two of Beethoven’s  compositions with the title Bagatelle, and I’ve had to resort to the dictionary for a definition of the word, or else this post would never have seen the light of day. It is a difficult musical genre to pigeon-hole; perhaps that is why composers use the title, as a rather imprecise descriptor without too many expectations or musical ‘baggage’ attached.

Bagatelles crop up in unexpected places; the name in a musical sense was first used by Couperin in a work for keyboard named ‘Les Bagatelles‘ from his Pieces de clavecin, Second Livre, 10eme Ordre, in 1717. Since then, there have been Bagatelles for piano by composers from Beethoven to Bartok; Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité is one of his fascinating late works. Saint-Saens composed a suite of them; Russian composers Lyadov and Tcherepnin wrote examples as did Lennox Berkeley – his for two pianos. Howard Ferguson and Australian composer Carl Vine have each composed a set of five.

But it is Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, Op 33, Op 119 and Op 126 with which most pianists are familiar. Some of the easier ones provide a way into Beethoven’s piano music for pianists not yet ready to tackle the sonatas or variations.

Onikolaus-johann-van-beethoven-1776-1848-beethovens-brother-1362501234-article-0ne of my favourite bagatelles is  No 3 from Op 126, the set dedicated to Beethoven’s brother, Nikolaus Johann, pictured right. The opus number tells us that it belongs to Beethoven’s ‘late’ period; the warm key of E flat major promises something rather special.

Here is Myra Hess:

This is a lovely piece; brief, but elegant and poised, profound in its simplicity. There is but one main melody which appears at first in different registers with varied accompaniments, and whose harmonic outline is then wreathed in  demisemiquavers high in the piano’s heavenly regions before gradually descending to earth. There is a magical pedal effect at the end where the sustaining pedal is not released, giving a gently lingering, harmonic haze.


You won’t find Beethoven’s most famous Bagatelle in any of the three published sets, although it may have been intended for one of them. It doesn’t even have an opus numbeLudwig Nohlr – rather it has a WoO number – Werke ohne Opuszahl 59. The manuscript is lost; the piece was only published long after Beethoven’s death, transcribed by the German writer, Beethoven_WoO_59_Erstausgabe (1)Ludwig Nohl, (right) who stated that the date on the manuscript was 27 April, 1810. There is considerable scholarly debate about the lady for whom it was written, with numerous theories put forward. It is, of course – ‘Für Elise’, which first appeared in 1867 in Nohl’s Neue Briefe Beethovens. The link to the first edition  is here.

Just play five notes of the opening RH motif  –
E D#E D#E – and the piece is instantly recognisable.

I’m always pleased if pupils ask to learn ‘Für Elise'; there is much to be gained from mastering the mellifluous flow of the semiquavers at the beginning – the bit that everyone knows…  After that come the technical challenges of the middle section, in F major, introducing a LH Alberti bass beneath  a singing melody, and some nifty RH passage-work in demisemiquavers. Later, some urgent, repeated LH notes add to the piece’s technical requirements, providing a good first introduction to changing fingers in such passages, while the chords above them are colourful and dramatic. There’s an extended RH arpeggio in A minor too, and a chromatic scale descent – all useful grist to the mill, and a chance to demonstrate the real-music application of scales and arpeggios!

Here is Brendel:

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Brahms, Edward, and the L-Shaped Room

I still remember the occasion when Brahms’ music entered my life. Well, actually, it knocked me sideways – it was while watching the film of Lynne Reid Banks’ novel, ‘The L-Shaped Room’ on television as a teenager. Posters for the film state that the score is by John Barry, and indeed the jazz number in the nightclub scene is by him. But the majority of the background music is a recording of the first movement of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, Opus 15, performed by Peter Katin. The film clip above has part of the concerto, starting at about 2:49. Its emotional intensity, mirroring that of the film, was compelling, and the next day I went out and bought a recording which I still treasure – Emil Gilels with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Eugen Jochum.Brahms concerti

The concerto, in D minor, started life as a sonata for two pianos in 1854, and was dedicated to Brahms’ friend Julius Otto Grimm. It turned into a four movement symphony en route to its final destination as a concerto.

I mention this because I’m currently performing Brahms’ Ballade Op 10 no 1 in D minor, known as the ‘Edward’ Ballade, from his set of four Ballades, written at the same time in 1854, and dedicated to his friend, Julius O Grimm. I privately wonder if the first movement of the concerto grew out of the Ballade; it shares the same dark feeling of tragedy as well as the same key.

The Ballades Op 10 form an interesting set of early pieces, written when Brahms was 21. A great friend of the Schumann family, and a particular support to Clara Schumann during her husband’s mental illness, Brahms sent the manuscript to Schumann while Schumann was in the Endenich sanatorium, via Joachim, who visited him. Schumann wrote to Clara and Brahms about the Ballades: ‘… how wonderful the first is, absolutely new…’ , and on 11 January 1855 Brahms visited Schumann and performed the Ballades to him.

ThreaveThe first Ballade was inspired by a German translation of a Scottish literary ballad, ‘Edward‘ – here is a link to the original Scottish version as well as Johann Herder’s German translation, which sparked other composers, too – Schubert and Loewe both set the words as songs.

Written as a dialogue, it tells the gradually-unfolding story of a mother questioning her son about the blood on his sword; he replies saying that he has killed his hawk. She asks again – he  changes his answer – he has killed his steed. She questions a third time – and he confesses to having killed his own father. And at the end of the ballad, he states that she will bear the curse for it.

Grim stuff, and Brahms’ instrumental piece has all the forbidding atmosphere of a ruined Scottish castle, steeped in dark history.

The ominous chordal passage which opens the piece follows the rhythm of mother’s words exactly – ‘Dein Schwert, wie ists’ von Blut so rot? Edward. Edward‘ -a falling, two-note slur representing the two syllables of his name.

Her son replies glibly -in a different tonality, and more quickly, as he lies about the blood: ‘O ich hab geschlagen meinen Geier tot’.

Again comes a question, more slowly; and again a flippant, untruthful answer.

The music now changes to a major key, and a long passage is built on a musical motif from Edward’s replies. Against it is a new triplet figure, combining to create a massive climax at Edward’s impassioned outburst: ‘O ich hab geschlagen meinen Vater tot’ which is heard three times in full, then in ever-smaller fragments.

One last question from the mother, accompanied by a disturbing LH figure, a ragged remnant of the triplet idea. But the question is left unanswered; Edward has fled. The piece ends quietly, with no slowing down, no reply – and no happy ending.

Here is Gilels :


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The Lunch That Never Happened

170px-Brahms_Johannes_1887Browsing through a 1944 reprint of Edward Lockspeiser’s book Debussy in the Master Musician’s series, I was intrigued to read an account of a young Debussy going to visit Brahms in Vienna in 1887. The source was an article by André de Ternant in the Musical Times of 1924, in which he described Debussy at first trying in vain to meet Brahms, then finally gaining access to him at a luncheon hosted by a friend. The following day, they dined together in town, followed by a visit to the graves of Beethoven and Schubert.

It was a hoax. De Ternant fabricated the story, which was faithfully quoted in early biographies of Debussy, but subsequently exposed as fraudulent – for example, here in the appendix to Debussy: his Life and Mind, edited by Lockspeiser, © 1962.

But what if it were true … a constellation of composers, linked together by a Lunch That Never Happened …

Wien 18, Währinger Ortsfriedhof

Beethoven’s and Schubert’s original graves were in the Währinger Ortsfriedhof ; above, far left, is Beethoven’s, and far right, Schubert’s, in this 1904 photograph. In 1888 their bodies were removed to the Zentralfriedhof, to an area with other musicians; Brahms joined them there in 1897. Memorials remain at the original sites – below is Alfred Brendel at Schubert’s original resting-place.



My imagination was caught by the juxtaposition of these four composers, so this year my recitals feature works by each of them, and this blog will explore those works and related subjects. One of the pleasures of blogging is The Unexpected; one never knows what new avenues of discovery will open up. Unlike André de Ternant, however, I will endeavour to write the truth.

1833 Wahringer Ortsfriedhof


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A Miscelleny of Nocturnes

moon31st December 2014. Another year has passed, another topic explored. Thank you, dear Reader, for joining me on a nocturnal journey through the piano repertoire. We’ve looked at and/or listened to Nocturnes by Field, Czerny, Chopin, Pleyel, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Liszt, Fauré, Poulenc and Barber, and investigated music with nocturnal associations by Beethoven, Ravel and Sculthorpe.

There are so many more works to discover; here are just a few.

Grieg’s charming, short Notturno Op 54 No 4 features two trilling nightingales –

Britten’s Notturno was written for the Leeds International Piano Competition  –

-and Scriabin’s Nocturne Op 9 No 2 is for the left hand alone.

And for music with nocturnal associations, I’m rather fond of Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, from his Préludes I

Then there’s Bartok’s Musiques Nocturnes from his Out of Doors Suite.

In 2011 Liszt had the last word; in 2012 it was Debussy, and in 2013 Britten. But in 2014 I’m going to give the last word to Respighi, whose Notturno from 6 Pieces  No 3 of 1904 is an undiscovered gem –

And I wish you all a happy 2015.

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Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

John Browning - RavelAs a child, I was fascinated by the cover art of this record from my parents’ LP collection, as well as by the musical works on the disc, including Gaspard de la Nuit. Especially Ondine. 

Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841 )

…I thought I heard a vague harmony enchant my slumber and, near me, radiating, a identical murmur like the interrupted songs of a sad and tender voice.
– C. Brugnot (The Two Spirits)

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
It is I, Ondine, spirit of the water,
who brushes these drops,
The water on the resonant panes of your windows,
lit by the gloomy rays of the moon.
And here, in a gown of watered silk,
gazing from my chateau terrace,
I contemplate the beautiful starry night
and the restless sleeping lake.

“The waves are my sisters, swimming the paths
which wander towards my palace…
The walls are at the bottom of the lake,
in a fluid structure of earth and fire and air.

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
My father strikes the water with an alder branch,
My sisters caress the grass with arms of white foam,
lift the water lilies, move the rushes,
and tease the bearded willow which casts its line,
baited with leaves, into the darting water.”

When she had breathed her song, she begged me –
begged me – to put her ring on my finger;
to be her husband and sink with her down –
down to her drowned palace
and be king of all the lakes.
I told her I loved a mortal woman.
Abashed and vexed, she dissolved into tears and laughter;
vanished in a scatter of rain –
white streams across the dark night
of my window.

In 2012 I wrote  about Debussy’s Ondine, who frolics and splashes about in the water, whereas Ravel’s Ondine has deadly intent as she tries to seduce a mortal to follow her to a watery grave. ‘Ecoute, écoute! C’est moi, c’est Ondine…’ she sings, in a beguiling LH melody, interwoven within a shimmering, moonlit RH accompaniment in a cat’s cradle of considerable technical difficulty. Clever Ravel; it is mainly the RH which has the challenging repeated-chords-plus-rotation figure, and later on an alarming sequence of double notes. When the RH has the melodic material, the LH is usually occupied with arpeggio-based figuration. It all needs lightness and dexterity, control, strength when required, passion and imagination.

Here is Martha Argerich –

And then, Le Gibet.  A corpse hangs from a gallows, reddened by the light of the setting sun. A bell tolls, on the same note throughout, amidst a texture which constantly changes. Remarkable pianistic writing.

Richter –

Finally, Scarbo. Malevolent, menacing, diabolical, a night fiend who, at midnight by the light of the moon, scratches at the bed-curtains, scampers about the room, grows to a huge size  – and disappears. Not a piece for the faint-hearted; Ravel intended this piece to surpass Balakirev’s Islamey in difficulty, and succeeded. The passages involving RH consecutive seconds are notorious, but none of it is easy, except perhaps the first three notes.

Here is Pogorelich performing the entire work, with the score added –

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